3.1 Advanced Theoretical Studies in Grammar: What does structuralism entail?

Chapter  3


3.1 Examine the concept of structuralism


As we have already seen, traditional grammar has a number of failings. It was in an attempt to address them that Structuralism arose. The form of the word shows that it is derived from the word ‘structure’. The proponents of this school of grammar maintain that language has a structure. Their central interest is therefore to study the structure of a given language.


Structuralism began almost simultaneously in Europe and America in the early 20th century without mutual influence. Remarkably, the structuralists managed to free the study of language from other disciplines such as philosophy, thereby studying it in its own right. Let us now briefly look at the key proponents of this school of grammar both in Europe and America.



Ferdinard de Saussure, a Swiss scholar, is considered the father of modern linguistics since many of his ideas are still central to linguistics today. He maintained that the goal of a language study should be to describe the structure of that language (hence the term ‘structuralism’). He realised that such a study could be approached from two perspectives. One is diachronic and the other synchronic. The diachronic approach (also called historical) deals with the changes that have taken place over time in a given language. This could be in the area of spelling, meaning and sounds. For example, the word ‘bird’ was spelled as ‘brid’ and ‘knight’ meant ‘servant’ in old English. On the other hand, the synchronic approach deals with the state of a language at a particular time. He shifted the focus of linguistics from diachrony (popular in traditional grammar) to synchrony by collecting samples of spoken language which he then divided up into meaningful units (phonemes and words).

De Saussure is also credited with the distinction between langue and parole. Langue refers to the conventions or symbols used in communication, which a speech community shares. Parole is the speech of a particular individual in that speech community. He studied parole in order to arrive at the nature langue. This way, he was able to explain the systematic usage of language by the community and the differences that occurred in the speech of different speakers. He concluded that language is a communicative social phenomenon or system in which everything is interconnected (for example, sounds and meaning are linked). He argued that langue should be the focus of language study Furthermore, he demonstrated that language is organised at two levels, one horizontal  and the other vertical. The horizontal one he called the syntagmatic axis and the vertical one the paradigmatic axis. To illustrate the syntagmatic relation, the word ‘bed’ is made up of three sounds following one another- /b/ + /e/ + /d/. Paradigmatically, we can replace the /d/ with /t/ to form ‘bet’ or with /g/ to form ‘beg’. We therefore can make a choice depending on the word we want.

In America, structuralism was spearheaded by the following personalities.


FRANZ BOAS (1858-1954)

Franz Boas was a German who had migrated to America. He was mainly interested in describing the phonology, morphology and phrase structure of Native Indian languages. Realising that traditional grammar was not suitable for his purposes, he shunned it in favour of a structuralist approach. He strongly believed that the features of one language should not be imposed upon another for this creates a distorted picture.


EDWARD SAPIR (1884-1939)

Sapir, a student of Boaz, was also a German who had migrated to America. Like his teacher, he regarded language as a social phenomenon. He rejected the practice of the time, which was to study European languages from a historical perspective. He instead focused on Native American languages. After studying their linguistic structure, he discovered that the parts of speech of traditional grammar were largely not applicable except for nouns and verbs. He therefore concluded that each language should be studied in its own right. He however thought that word order is a universal phenomenon. What this means is that all languages have a predictable way of arranging their words in order to form meaning. In addition, he took a keen interest in language as it occurs and the mental process involved in the production of that speech.

He and Boaz are regarded as the founders of American structuralism.



Bloomfield, the most influential linguistic in the first half of the 20th century, rejected Sapir’s mental approach to the study of language. He instead saw language as a set of acquired habits. These habits were observable and accounted for language learning. By taking a keen interest in the distribution of linguistic units, he demonstrated that language has a definite structure at the level of phonology, morphology and syntax. He advocated that the starting point of any linguistic study should be phonology.

He was the first person to convincingly show that the study of language is indeed a science. From then on, a linguist was seen as one who studies language scientifically but previously, it was one who could speak several languages (such as a person is a polyglot, not a linguist).



Having looked at the different players in this school of grammar, let us turn to the distinguishing aspects of structuralism especially as contrasted with traditional grammar.

  1. It is descriptive in Language data is collected and described while noting that there are formal, informal, written, spoken, standard and non-standard varieties. No judgement is passed on what is preferable.
  2. It recognises that languages differ and therefore each is studied in its own right.
  3. It acknowledges that languages do change over time and that neither the earlier nor the latter period is superior.
  4. Its definitions are based on form and position rather than on For example, as far as form is concerned, an English noun is a word that can take the plural (student-s) and possessive (student-`s) morphemes. It can also take suffixes like -ment, -ness, -ity and -er. In terms of position, it can be preceded by a determiner or by an adjective or both. In form, a subject is typically a noun phrase while in terms of position, it occurs in front of the verb phrase in statements.
  5. It demonstrates that language has a system or a structure. This is best captured in the technique of breaking down language called immediate constituent analysis, which was initiated by Bloomfield.


The goal of ICA is to identify and describe words that are closely related (Immediate constituents). A two-way or binary system is used in dividing up a sentence into decreasing parts called constituents. In syntax, the biggest constituent is therefore the sentence while the smallest is the word. In morphology, the smallest is the morpheme, whether bound or free. To illustrate, we will make a binary analysis of the sentence ‘The small boys opened the door’ and indicate how some of the constituents are related to each other.

1. The small boys / opened the

{NP-subject}              {VP-predicate}

2. The / small boys

{det}   {noun phrase}

3. Small / boys

{adj} {noun}

4. opened / the door

{verb} {noun phrase}

5. the / door

{det} {noun}


Morphologically, the word ‘boys’ is divided into ‘boy’ and ‘-s’ and ‘opened’ into ‘open’ and ‘-ed’.

Concerning the relationship between constituents, those that need each other (and are therefore both obligatory) are said to be in mutual dependency (also called binary dependency). This kind of relationship exists between a subject and a predicate (i above), a determiner and a singular noun (viii above), and a transitive verb and its object (v above). If one of the constituents is obligatory and the other optional, they have a relationship of unilateral dependency. For example, in (ii) and (iii) above, the first constituent can be left out but not the second one. If two constituents cannot co-occur, they are said to be in mutual exclusion. This would be the relationship between the subject and a pronoun if one were to be introduced as in * The small boys they…

The are several criteria used in determining what forms a constituent. First is substitutability. For example, the noun phrase ‘ the small boys’ can be replaced by the pronoun ‘they’. Second is coordination. This means that we can join one unit to another similar one as in ‘the small boys and the big girls’ or ‘opened and closed’. Third is movement. This means that we can move a unit from one position of the sentence to another as in ‘The door was opened by the small boys’- initially the phrase appeared after the verb.



The strong points if ICA include:

  1. ability to show constituents that are closely related and to describe
  2. ability to show the hierarchical nature of constituents (the biggest to the smallest)

ability to remove ambiguity in sentences. For example, in the sentence “ New shoes and handbags are expensive”, we don’t know whether only the shoes are expensive or both the shoes and the handbags.



Among the weak points of ICA are:

  1. it has no capacity to generate new sentences ( can only analyse existing ones)
  2. it cannot detect ill-formed structures as such * pupil write poem
  3. cannot handle discontinuous Consider the sentence: “She brought the children up well”. ‘brought’ and ‘up’ are closely related since they form a phrasal verb but ICA has no way of putting them in the same constituent. Also in “Nimewaona watoto wawili” there is no way of showing that ‘wa’ and ‘watoto’ are one and the same constituent.
  4. the binary division does not work in some constituents. This problem is evident in cases involving coordination as in ‘ Kindness and honesty are virtues’. The question is, should ‘and’ be in the same constituent with ‘kindness’ or with ‘honesty’?
  5. the relationships among constituents are not applicable to most languages so they are not
  6. it has no way of indicating missing but understood elements such as ‘You’ in ‘come here’.
  7. Has no way of showing how various types of sentences are related. Among these are: active and passive, statements and questions and affirmative and negative sentences



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